Yesterday, Doug Gibson wrote, “I’m graduating shortly with a BFA — major in painting. The university is strong on conceptual and weak on technique. I got a lot of academics, students and profs mad at me because I reject obfuscation, i.e., artspeak. I came to realize the only art they taught was how to justify the objects they made. I’m not so sure they even understand the artspeak they use. I used the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ in a painting to criticize art criticism. That’s when I started to get really creative. I began to live when I refused to paint the politics of body, gender, identity, space, colonialism, etc. It’s not that my work rejects what the university taught me; rather, my work is an informed response to what I’ve been taught. The impressionists are revered because they rejected the ‘academic’ painting of their day. Artists these days need to ‘deconstruct’ the academia of their generation in order to keep their discipline from dystrophy.”
Thanks for that, Doug. My daughter, Sara, ran the same gauntlet. She could have written your letter. So could thousands of others. Take heart, you will emerge a wiser and a stronger artist. Take heart, the poisons are reversible. Take heart, it’s what you do in your own room after you have forgotten where you left your BFA that really counts. Know that our world is currently oversupplied with the politics of “body, gender, identity, space, colonialism, etc.” These concerns and their expression are as common as hamburgers. It’s enough to make you want to go home and become a fridge magnet. But take heart, you are now beginning to live, and when you step from those hallowed halls your true life will bloom. The real world of art is a daily adventure of joy, personal challenge and exploration. As you come more and more to love your processes you will have other things to worry about — like surface quality, for example. As you develop more skills and techniques on your own, you will look back and wonder even more what they were talking about. Education comes from within. You will soon be free. It’s called graduation. The main magic is starting.
PS: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” (Aristotle) “I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.” (Galileo) “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (Mark Twain)
Esoterica: There is a time and a place to take things seriously, of course. University art schools excel in this seriousness. But many art instructors agree with me that they ought not be taken so seriously. Their need to create general “artistic literacy” puts them squarely on the horns of a dilemma. Difficult crafts such as ours have always been easier to talk about than to do. But know that enchantment, plain and simple, wins hands down over all forms of deconstruction. That’s why my graduating tip (number 12956) is, “Paint Doug, and spend your first year out of school as a mute.”
Learning will continue
by Robert Turenne, Montreal, Canada
Funny, I was thinking of writing the same letter! I will be done with my BFA in a couple of months. This last year has been pretty rough, with lots of theory and not enough painting. And of course, that’s theory by people who do not have an art practice — just theory. But overall, the process was interesting. I did learn quite a lot. It may not be all relevant, but the learning process counts. As when I finished another degree, I now realize that I know nothing. Learning will continue, but experience will shape the future. I’m excited by all that freedom ahead.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I hope the frustration Doug feels and so eloquently expresses about formal education will not discourage young artists from going to college. True, most of what we learn seems to be in spite of instruction rather than because of it, but you can’t know what’s going to end up being useful later. The classes I hated the most, the classes that, at the time, seemed the most archaic and irrelevant, ultimately forced me to learn some very useful skills, and made me the artist I am today. Plus you get to meet a lot of really cool people in art school.
by Renne Rhae, San Diego, CA, USA
I can identify with what Doug Gibson is feeling. I am a self-taught artist and have spent a good number of years doing commission work, or, painting what I see. I find that by reversing that sentence it sheds a whole different light on the canvas. I no longer struggle to paint what I see, but instead, I’m learning to see what I’m painting. It requires a different attitude, challenge and creative sight and I find a new adventure (and message) in every canvas.
Reconnected with the clay
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
After I graduated from art school I felt lost and confused. I was convinced that “everything had already been painted” and that there was no new imagery or “ism” for artists to come up with. A few years later I went back to school and got an art education degree. They had a six weeks unit on clay sculpture, and when I touched the clay, something I had lost came back to me. I suddenly remembered who my first art teacher was: my mother, who taught me clay when I was a child. I’ve been doing miniature ceramic sculptures ever since that “eureka” moment when I reconnected with clay.
by Pat Rafferty
As Mark Twain would want, I am captivated and intrigued by your recent letter. Initially, I found myself agreeing with your paraphrasing of Doug Gibson. Then I came to realize that I wasn’t sure about the intent of several of your statements. Please elaborate on your remark, “Know that our world is currently oversupplied with the politics of “body, gender, identity, space, colonialism, etc.” Do you mean that it could be otherwise? What do you believe has prompted the perceived current oversupply?
(RG note) Those concerns, while valid in their own right, have become required material in University art departments from Wackanacksak to Dover.
“Art” was hijacked
by Ron Stacy, Victoria, BC, Canada
The BFA is best used if your career goal is to be a curator for a gallery or a museum, an art historian, a professor, art politician or a pursuer of grants. The best way to learn to be an artist is simply to create art. Today, as I was driving in to teach my night school class, I was thinking that it’s time to take art back from academia. New York academics actually stole it from the artists and have been trying to convince us ever since that crap was good and good was crap. And now the nonsense has spread around the world, and we, who create it all, sit idly by and allow this theft. I say, “Drive them from the temple!” Let’s build from skill and let the purely expressionist conceptualists come up with a new word for what they produce — and leave our word, “Art,” alone.
BFA a statement of intent
by Bryan Dunleavy, Southampton, UK
There is a lot to criticise about university teaching but it does give starting artists a few years of useful experimentation. We should look upon the BFA as a statement of intent rather than an end in itself. Many fall by the wayside because artists like to eat just like everybody else and it is difficult to sustain the work unpaid over 10 or 20 years. But those who do stick with it get there and the university degrees hardly matter; in fact don’t matter at all!
Save us from academia
by David Sharpe, Denver, CO, USA
My son is starting a BFA with a painting major next fall at art school and I’m going to save Doug’s letter and give it to him to read on his first day. He’s heard some of it from me (I’m a representational painter) but it’ll mean more from a grad. Save us from Academia in Art.
by Gerti Hilfert, Lagenfeld, Germany
I am an autodidact and I love to find out new techniques on my own. I feel free about combining and mixing as long as the materials fit and show a durable result. I just try and try. Art means always a surprise when you’re open and ready for adventuring.
Shut up and play
by Lori S. Lukasewich, Calgary, AB, Canada
I have always carried shame about not completing school. While I still wish that I had that old degree, I have found that I love teaching continuing education, because I get to introduce art to students that are totally new to it. Artspeak I never use as it would only get in the way of their learning to put brush to ground. If they want to they can go find that elsewhere, later — after they get those fundamentals figured out. The only way to become a good painter is to paint. Or as Frank Zappa says, “Shut Up and Play your Guitar.”
by Luke Meeken, Pittsburgh & Cleveland, USA
I don’t mind obfuscation when there’s something worthwhile to dig up in the work. The notion that for art to be good it has to give you its meaning straight-up and walk you through itself caters to lazy minds, and there’s always something rewarding about coming from a piece of work feeling like you’ve worked out a neat puzzle, or about experiencing some art that has affected you in a wonderful way that you can’t quantify simply because it was so strange and unusual and well-done.
But, going to a conceptual art school, I know where he’s coming from. Far too many people seize on to the fact that they can use obfuscation to hide the fact that their piece actually has no concept, or uses a poorly conceived concept, or belabors some trite concept (“politics of body, gender, identity, space, colonialism, etc.”… I’ve grown so sick of the terms ‘identity’ and ‘space’ that even if good art comes along that explores those concepts I instantly lose interest…same goes with ‘maps’ and ‘mapping space’…).
On the other side, art that looks nice but is stupid is just that — stupid. You can really appreciate Bougereau’s technique and mark-making and rendering style, he’s totally the shits. Eventually, you get tired of looking at stupid cherubs kissing each other and flying around Venuses, and realize the work is deeply unfulfilling and conceptually dead.
It’s wrong to make hard and fast decisions either way. Everyone finds their own balance. To chastise conceptual work for not being ‘easy’ enough is as pointless as chastising cartoon art or abstract art for not being ‘realistic’ enough.
Students refuse to open their minds
by Scarlett Decker, San Manuel, AZ, USA
I’m saddened to see this response. This is a huge problem in education. Many students absolutely refuse to open their minds. You have no idea how difficult it is to teach some students. What other discipline allows students to come in and reject any and all teachings? Look at a Russian newspaper headline. Can we read it? No. Do we like it? No. Do we understand it? No. Visual art, especially contemporary is the same and if we don’t speak the language we can’t understand it. Fortunately, when I teach at the college level I have far more students that have open minds and allow themselves to absorb what is taught. After graduation then, artists can choose their own visual preferences but those who have many understandings of art are not mindless zombies as your letter implies but simply recipients of a well-rounded arts education.
I get so sick of the “Emperor’s new clothes” analogy. I didn’t know you were anti-contemporary art. Pity, this.
Continuous garbage project
by Pnina Granirer, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I have used the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ analogy for quite a while now myself, but I am always happy to hear it from young artists who have gone through the system, and I hear this more and more. Just recently I corresponded with Adrian Livesley, who wrote a marvelous piece in Artichoke Magazine on the ‘Continuous Garbage Project,’ which got the VIVA Award, was written up in Canadian Art and was generally acclaimed as one of the greatest works on the planet. He ends the article by saying that this was the biggest art hoax ever pulled. He wants to do a MFA but could not find a University program which did not adhere to the artspeak stream, so he went to Mexico, which never bought into this empty, self-serving and snobbish practice.
Keep it up, Doug, we need someone to point the finger and shout that the Emperor is naked!
by Melia Dawn, Dallas, TX, USA
I think you are doing Doug a great disservice by coddling his opinions. I had a similar art education. My drawing instructors were much more into teaching technique. And I had strong opinions about what I should be learning in those painting classes. And they were very similar to Doug’s. When I got out of college, I didn’t feel prepared to pursue an art career. So I got a job working in “the real world.” It took 3 years to get back to painting after graduation. My biggest regret was that I had such strong opinions in college. I wish I had been more into exploring what options there were instead of telling everyone that they were wrong. I missed out on so much because I had blinders on. I could only see what I wasn’t getting, not what other things I could be learning.
School made you think
by Ortrud K. Tyler, Oak Island, NC, USA
So you have been through the process. So they stuffed your head with “useless” exercises, thoughts, practices, theories etc. So what! It made you think. There are thousands out in the world “creating” without ever thinking about why, what, how or anything else. You will hear often “all I want to do is paint,” which most of the time means nothing but dipping brush into medium and applying it to whatever support. Be thankful, you learned to think, to process, to distinguish etc. You can reject whatever you want to — at least you will know why you are doing it. That is an accomplishment by itself. No, it is not all in the hand with the brush, some things should pass through the brain first. Besides life, being the great equalizer will help you sort things out. So, go forth and have fun, do the best work you can do and never, ever stop learning.
by Nancy Law, Ontario, Canada
I returned to University a few years ago to complete a BA in fine arts. I had been working as a professional artist for about 5 years after I graduated from Art College and I thought that by returning to university I would be able to explore and find new direction in my work. I instead became really frustrated by the whole political academic mentality and was really happy when I graduated. My advice to Doug is to hang in there and get his piece of paper. Your “Bachelor of Fuck All” can open some doors. Mine enabled me to manage a gallery in Ireland — a place where people buy art and I make decent money.
Work not limited by knowledge
by Sigrid Tidmore, Tampa, FL, USA
I wanted to get an art degree in college, but I was pressured by parents to study for a “real job” — so I ended up in biochemistry. Later, in a stroke of compromise, I took a job as a medical illustrator which eventually led to running an ad agency and traveling extensively on international projects. Now, at 50, I have returned to my first love — painting. Thinking I would build my personal legitimacy as a fine artist, I enrolled in an MFA program at a respectable university. What an awakening and disappointment! While some courses were interesting, most were irrelevant to my artistic success. Not only were they short on technique, they literally seemed to discourage innovative thinking. After a year, I decided my time and money were best spent actually painting — not just musing about it. These days I tell people that my work is “not limited by knowledge!”
True final exam
by Jerry Lucey
Painting is so much a part of me, how could I share it with another? How would I or another artist share their soul? Going to school to learn the way to being a great artist would not seem possible. Learning the tools and what might work for you is a possibility. My school had no grand goals except to teach us how to make use of the tools. The instructors were all professional, in that they were selling their work and making a living. When you have taken in all the tricks of the trade, you are on your own. Once you are on your own and nothing happens, it could be you selected the wrong profession. A visit, along with your artwork, to a good gallery owner will tell more about your work than all the art teachers in the world. When you are ready, this is the true final exam.
High school fabulous
by Keena Friedrichsmeier Payne, Bella Coola, BC, Canada
I am lucky, I didn’t get a BFA! I went to University to get a BSc. I had hoped I could get a minor in Fine Arts, but I was told in no uncertain terms that, “Art is Art and Science is Science, and never the twain shall meet!” Bah humbug. I campaigned for three years to take art. At long last, in my final year, I was told, “Lucky you! You may now take a new course, ‘Art for Non-Artists.’ ” Well, I can tell you it was hardly worth the wait. I will tell you though — that my high school art classes were fabulous! I learned so much from my art teachers and owe them all the credit. I had hoped the university level course would be an expanded version of the high school courses, but I was disappointed. My high school courses covered the basics with excellence, we tried all sorts of materials and methods, and got some good art history to boot. Politics? No. Artspeak? No. Teaching as a justification of the objects they make? No. Just Art. Wonderful!
(Mrs. Grant-Rose of Sir James Dunn Collegiate in Soo, Ontario, if you are reading this — Thank-You!)
Bean counters don’t get it
by Anthony Kam, Knoxville, TN, USA
After 30-plus years as a practicing Architect, I have encountered many types of clientele. The outstanding topic that occurs repeatedly is that of comprehension and visualization. People say that they just can’t read drawings. I believe that the real reason is that they were never personally involved in the “creative process” which could have taken place in their early years of education. Even with the college academic curriculum, there are very few courses that stress creativity. Educators talk about the “rounded education” of the college academics, but the emphasis is usually still on the student’s major. The sad truth is that the ones with the highest incomes usually are the least creative. I guess it’s the Right brain / Left brain syndrome (bean counters usually lack creativity). Most people just want to copy someone else’s buildings since they can see the finished product and not have to visualize concepts. I certainly share the concerns of other responders regarding the lack of art education in the schools.
Can’t blame the colleges
by Mary Madsen
I spent the first few decades of my adult life as a writer, then made the fatal error of thinking a degree in English might be a good idea. Whoops. It took me three years and mucho big bucks to earn that degree, then another three years to undo the damage done to my writing skills by my schooling. A formal education in the arts can be like a physical injury sustained early in life–it keeps flaring up the rest of your days and you sometimes find yourself limping where once your gait was steady. I was a far better writer when I was writing, than after I’d learned about writing and wrote endlessly about other people’s writing. It’s why I now spend my days with clay and cameras and paints.
It’s not unusual for a young art school graduate these days to walk away from academe minus four years of their life and over $100,000 in debt. It boggles the mind to think what new voices and visions could have come from these bleary-eyed young paupers if they’d spent those resources on exploration and surrender to passion and play and curiosity. And it’s not just the arts that have suffered from higher education. It’s no coincidence that we lost our Frank Lloyd Wrights (no college degree), Thomas Edisons (nine months of “schooling”) and Einsteins (a miserable failure at all levels of formal education) after the Second World War and the advent of the “red brick” college, where higher education became available to all. Our creative resources seem to have started dwindling around mid-century, just as our country went to college.
In the end, we can’t really blame our colleges and universities. When we try to place blame it always comes around to bite us on the butt. It is the rare individual with the self-discipline and courage to buck the system and hole up for four years on their own.
Grateful for the experience
by Marian Helsby
I’ve learned that most large systems are made routine and rationalized into mummification, and in being so, they include stagnant pools of thinking that deplore innovation since this would destroy the stasis. Universities, for all their palaver, are really only vital because of the students and are mainly systems of intellectuals who vie for prestige, often within barren ivory towers. Now the final irony is this, I have learned to recognize this because I went to university, got thinking about it, learned a bit of lingo, and had some first hand examples. Universities are our revered paradoxical, secular cathedrals where frequently souls are temporarily removed in order that one can assimilate ‘knowledge.’ However, after the experience and realizing our important parts are still intact, one is even a little grateful for the experience.
A complete fraud
by Paul B. Ohannesian, Vancouver, BC, Canada
In the early ’90s, I wanted to make a career change from architecture to art. I thought that the way to do it began with getting a BFA. I enrolled in second year as my former degree permitted jumping first year and stuck it out for a year and a half. At the end of the first year I visited my sculptor uncle Clement Renzi in Fresno, California. I shared what I had been doing with him. After I returned home, no letters arrived and I pestered him for one until in September he finally wrote, saying he could only write truthfully and what I had told him of my artistic “education” distressed him greatly. It was, of course, all of those political, gender, colonialism, etc. issues mentioned in your editorial. As well, the practical instruction I was receiving in printmaking, drawing, and painting was practically useless. He urged me to bail out immediately.
I struggled with that all through the fall term of third year, then quit, convinced he was right. While the path since then has been rocky (whose isn’t?), I have always felt I did the right thing to get away from that hothouse of academic doublespeak. I have discovered that with the help of a few dedicated private teachers and a lot of self-teaching, I have progressed in etching and watercolour to levels that give me satisfaction and that are appreciated by others too. While the decent income is still a distant mirage, at least I have spent the time since 1995 making art rather than talking or writing about art.
Art education as I experienced it is a complete fraud. I am angry still when I think of the smugness of those who were pushing those points of view at the expense of true drawing-out of the innate artistic abilities of the captive audience of students. Nothing lasts forever, it’s said, and I say that this mode of wasting the dollars and time of young and not-so-young people must cease, the sooner, the better. It’s no wonder at all that the broad public considers artists and their hangers-on as elitist and stay away in droves from exhibitions and museums.
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I was spending a few minutes in my studio scanning a current art magazine and what occurred to me was the feeling that there is a world of tiresome art out there. Much of that art would have been praised in graduate school and obviously is getting recognition because of its verbal packaging. It will go on regardless of how superficial or cerebral it is, because this world runs on promoting the newest oddity. Though much of this work is not very special at all. I received my MFA in NYC, where I was required to view an extraordinary amount of exhibitions each month. If you know NYC you know there are endless opportunities to see work in galleries, museums and studios. There is pressure for artists to be on the cutting edge, unfortunately what that can lead to is a tendency to be hip, pretentious or loud. While in graduate school I had to begin the process of being selective. With so much work out there to view I learned to edit and I learned what art inspires in me. I realized that the strength in a work of art is its ability to transcend its materials. It must have a life of its own. If I am going to view work in a museum I expect the strength of the work to be visual first and foremost, or at least experiential through the senses. That is the magic of art. It has an immediacy and when it is successful I experience it in the place in me without words. That is what is exciting to me about visual art. It has a power and the best response to that power may simply be “ahhhh” or “ohhhh.” The experience of making art that is beyond the limitations of description is as liberating as any spiritual practice. That is where I want to connect to my creativity, in that space far beyond the habits of the mind. Painting in this way is a meditation. Why else would we paint if it didn’t connect us to the scintillating source of life? It is useful to know what the world of art is up to, but one must go within oneself to explore one’s own wondrous individuality. Then perhaps one can make a meaningful contribution to this world.
Matte painting by
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